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Guantanamo captives say abuse included mocking Islam

Claims cast doubt on US portrayals of treatment

MIAMI -- Captives at the Guantanamo Bay prison are alleging that guards kicked and stomped on Korans and cursed Allah, and that interrogators punished them by taking away their pants, knowing that would prevent them from praying.

Guards also mocked captives at prayer and censored Islamic religious books, the captives allege. And in one incident, they say, a prison barber cut a cross-shaped patch of hair on an inmate's head.

Most of the complaints come from the recently declassified notes of defense lawyers' interviews with prisoners, which Guantanamo officials initially stamped ''secret." Under a federal court procedure for due-process appeals by about 100 inmates, portions are now being declassified.

The allegations of religious abuses contradict Pentagon portrayals of the Guantanamo prison for Taliban and Al Qaeda suspects as respectful of Islam. Commanders at the base in Cuba have showcased the presence of Muslim chaplains and the issuance of Korans, prayer rugs, caps and beads and religiously correct halal meals.

Army Colonel David McWilliams, the spokesman for the Miami-based Southern Command, which supervises the prison, said he could not confirm or deny the specific complaints. They could not be independently investigated because the US military bans reporters from interviewing detainees.

But McWilliams denied any policy of religious abuse.

''There's certainly no planned approach from guards to interrogators that pits Christianity against Islam," he told The Miami Herald. ''The policy has been to show respect for the Islamic religion -- and that runs the gamut from providing the items they need for prayer to making sure their diets are appropriate."

The accounts of religious indignities and abuses come from at least two dozen captives and a range of attorneys -- from US military lawyers assigned to defend prisoners to activist law professors and private corporate lawyers who have sued since the Supreme Court ruled in June that the captives can contest their detention in US courts.

''On or about Christmas 2002, the head of shift banged on detainees cells, yelling Merry Christmas and cursing Allah," said New York attorney Joshua Colangelo-Bryan's notes from his interview with Jumah al Dossari, 31, of Bahrain. ''Subsequently, a lieutenant arrived and . . . he hit Mr. al Dossari and insulted the Koran."

And after Dossari asked a military policeman identified only as Smith why Smith had beaten him unconscious in one episode, according to the lawyer's notes, ''Smith replied, 'Because I'm Christian.' "

New York lawyer Adrian Stewart said one of his 14 Yemeni clients, a man in his 20s, had his eyebrows and head shaved three times as punishment -- and one time the Army barber left what his client described as a cross-shaped patch of hair on his head.

Military spokesmen would not say whether they believed that the incident was the same one for which a prison barber was reprimanded for giving a detainee a haircut described as a Mohawk in February 2003.

The latest allegations of abuses at the prison in southeastern Cuba come as a three-star Air Force general is investigating FBI accounts of harsh interrogation tactics -- and subsequent reports that women soldiers used sexual taunts during interrogations. Devout Muslim men believe they must not touch women other than their wives.

New York attorney Marc Falkoff said his 13 Yemeni clients, men in their 20s and 30s, were also victims of religious humiliation.

Falkoff said prisoner Majid Ahmad, 24, told him that an interrogator stepped on his Koran at one point -- a sacrilege in Islam -- and that prisoners are ''mocked during prayers."

Falkoff and other lawyers said prisoners also claimed to them that US troops periodically blared music during prayer time or tried to drown out a recording of the call to prayers. But that's not the worst.

''The things they always complain about is their trousers are routinely taken away from them for a variety of disciplinary actions, including not talking during interrogations," Falkoff said. ''Now, the reason this is a punishment . . . is that these guys can't pray without being covered head to foot . . . and they see this as a religious insult."

The military says soldiers take pants from prisoners who might try to hang themselves; captives call it calculated punishment because Islam requires that they be covered as they pray five times a day.

The alleged religious indignities and abuses have disturbed US military officers assigned to defend the detainees.

''From vaunted religious freedom to what actually exists for Mr. Hamdan are worlds apart," said Navy Lieutenant Commander Charles Swift, lawyer for Salim Hamdan, 35, a Yemeni who worked as a driver on Osama bin Laden's Afghanistan farm.

To help his client pass time, Swift said, he brought Hamdan $550 worth of mainstream Muslim books that had been allowed in the prison during its first year of operation. He said censors prohibited them and explained that only Army-issued Korans were allowed.

''He did get one religious book -- it was approved in two days -- the Bible," Swift said.

Defense lawyers were unwilling to speculate on which alleged religious abuses involved approved US interrogation techniques, and which were committed by soldiers acting on their own.

But Pentagon interrogation rules have at times permitted the use of religion as a pressure point at Guantanamo, which, unlike the Abu Ghraib prison during the early, chaotic days in Iraq, was a strictly controlled site 8,000 miles from the battle zone.

Guantanamo commanders have boasted in successive media presentations that the Army captain who serves as intelligence chief systematically strips prisoners of religious articles such as prayer beads, a prayer rug, or prayer oils if they are deemed uncooperative.

''The issue of removing published religious items or materials would be relevant if these were United States citizens with a First Amendment right. Such is not the case with the detainees," said an Oct. 11, 2002, legal brief written by the Guantanamo interrogation unit's lawyer, Army Lieutenant Colonel Diane E. Beaver.

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